Issue No. 100
Remember being a teenager? Remember how the adult world, growing ever larger on the horizon, looked disappointing or disgusting one minute and then shimmered with thrills and promises the next? Peter, the seventeen-year old narrator of Ted Thompson’s marvelous story “Mascots,” is a profoundly liminal creature. Not only is he in the midst of ordinary adolescent flux, but the death of his identical twin, Carter, means his physical self has become an uncanny surrogate for someone tragically lost. Subtly, through his body, in listening to music or encountering a woman, he attempts to inhabit his twin, and other people try to reach Carter through him. “People kept touching me,” he says, “hands on my back and head and neck, as though in doing so they were reaching across the divide, as if I was a creature with one foot in this world and one in the next.”
Far from being a lugubrious tale of teen death, “Mascots” is a spare, airy piece of writing that abounds with wit (Heintz and Deiter—I will say no more) and pleasurable tactile details: Carter’s club kid hoodies and his “rainbow of rare European sneakers,” the translucent lime green vinyl of one of his records “spinning there continuous as a hypnotist’s spiral,” a “patchwork of family photos that cluttered the hallway wall… like the portholes on a deranged ship.” The world here is tough, funny, vibrant, wrenched out of shape.
A word that always comes up in discussions of why short stories are difficult to write is “compression,” but this story is less an example of compression than of exclusion, of expertly deployed mystery. We don’t know how Carter died, though there are clues. We don’t know why Peter, returning from Outward Bound, wants to show his mother “in a single glimpse, that I had changed.” Changed how? Why? We don’t know. We don’t even learn the exact circumstances of how a lifeguard’s nipple ring came to be rippled out. In the work of a less capable writer, all these questions might make the story feel incomplete, but here the gaps suggest the silencing effect of pain, how some things must be gestured at rather than spelled out. Mystery in fiction makes room for the imagination, and isn’t the chance to imagine, to wonder, one of the best parts of reading?
“Mascots,” which appeared in Tin House in 2009, was, remarkably, Ted’s first published story, and I’m delighted to recommend it just after the publication of his excellent first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, out last month from Little, Brown.
Author of Astonish Me
Support Recommended Reading
by Ted Thompson
Recommended by Maggie Shipstead
There was a cutter who had scars like tiny plastic slugs on her arm, and a guy who torched his high school gym with a bucket of gasoline, his neck and jaw still shiny and melted. They were kids who had been given everything and still terrified their families with an unexplainable urge to destroy. All they need is self-confidence, promised Outward Bound, we’ve seen it time and time again. But I knew, even before I went, when Mom had set the catalog in front of me and showed me the pages of kids smiling, arm-in-arm at the summit of a Teton, that the trip wasn’t for me. I don’t belong on this, I’d wanted to tell her.
But marching up our granite walkway, pushing open our heavy front door and entering again the familiar air of home, I was ready, after twenty-eight days in the woods, to put that behind me. I was ready, in a way, to start again.
The front hallway smelled of Pine-Sol, and even though I knew better, I charged in with my boots, their hard muddy soles echoing with each step, and turned the corner hoping to see my mother, to appear before her with my big, dirty backpack and face darkened by the Wyoming sun, and show her, in a single glimpse, that I had changed. But neither of my parents were in the living room. Instead, two boys were on the floor in front of the television, leaning forward as if transfixed.
“Hello?” I said. They turned their heads, staring at me for a long moment. On the television, a game show contestant was being suspended from a helicopter by a cable.
One of them climbed to his feet. “I am Heintz,” he said, holding out his hand. He was small and soft, a mop-headed blonde who wore a tight polo shirt over his doughy middle. As I shook his hand, the other one came up beside him. He was scrawny as a marathoner and wore a baggy tank top that exposed his entire bony torso through the holes at his armpits. Neither could’ve been more than fourteen.
“Who are you guys?” I said.
“They’re our guests,” said Mom, coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron tied around her waist. She seemed to have shrunken while I was gone, as if all that time at the beach had somehow boiled her down to her concentrated core. Her hair had grown and been bleached by the sun, its straight golden strands pulled back and barretted over its sandy base. She reached up and cupped her cool hands along my jaw. It had been a month since I’d shaved, which at seventeen was something like watching weeds grow in an abandoned lot. “Your hair,” she said, grabbing a shaggy bit that poked out from behind my ear. “It’s so long.”
She stepped back, clutching the clumps behind my ears, as if trying to picture me without it. “There you are,” she said, and kissed me, almost angrily, on the cheek.
The boys had come from Austria, she said, part of a summer exchange program for German-speaking youth called “Surfin’ USA!”
“Stupid name,” said Deiter, shaking his head at me. “Nobody surfs.”
“That’s not true!” chimed in Heintz from the kitchen. “We went at Block Island.”
“That was boogie boarding! It’s not the same.” Deiter looked at me and rolled his eyes. “It’s for babies.”
As I sank into the sofa, I felt suddenly filthy. There were dark strips on my polypropylene shirt from the pack straps and my armpits were nearly black. The little one was hustling around the kitchen, carrying trays and bowls back and forth for my mother. Mom had always been a health nut, serving us celery chutes after school and, much to Carter’s and my embarrassment, tempeh cheese steaks to our friends. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen her bake.
“Who wants a coo-kie?” said Heintz, carrying in a plate piled high with warm Tollhouse.
“These boys can eat,” said Mom, and Heintz lit up with a crumbly smile. “I’m at the grocery every other day.”
“It’s Deiter,” said Heintz. “He’s so greedy.”
“What?” said Deiter, launching into a long stream of German. “Heintzy is so stupid,” he said to me finally, shaking his head. “See for yourself.” He pointed to his chest, then at Heintz’s round belly. “Who eats more?”
“You’re both beautiful,” said my mother, and we sat for a moment with that thought and the soft crunching of our cookies.
“Where did they come from again?” I said. I had called from the airport and she hadn’t said a word.
“Peter,” said Mom with a sigh. “They lost their exchange family and were going to have to stay in a motel.” She shook her head. “They’re great kids.” Heintz kicked his feet, the toes of his socks flapping.